BOOK REVIEW: Pandemic by Scott Sigler
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Orbital may be gone, but when its legacy resurfaces it’s up to Doctor Margaret Montoya to put an end to the alien nightmare forever.
PROS: Strong characters; large scope; intense action; intelligently written science fiction.
CONS: Slow start; lack of a shock-factor; weak ending.
BOTTOM LINE: A global biological disaster thriller that neatly wraps up a beloved series.
Pandemic is the third Scott Sigler book I’ve read. The first was Infected, the beginning of the trilogy that Pandemic closes out. The body horror and psychological thrills exhibited in Infected shocked me to say the least. It read like an Eli Roth adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Despite the protagonist’s compelling personal plight I found the overall plot to be lacking and the characters largely unsympathetic. The second Sigler novel I read was Nocturnal, the start of a different series. I wasn’t completely sold on Nocturnal but I could recognize Sigler’s improvement as an author. It was a much tighter story with better plotting. Unfortunately it seemed to suffer the same issues with unlikeable characters. I’m happy to say that Pandemic continues the trend of improvement, delivering a solid bio-horror thriller, large in scope and populated with sympathetic characters.
Yes I skipped Contagious, the middle book in the trilogy, and it has been a couple years since I read Infected but I didn’t feel too out of my element when I picked up Pandemic. Through the perspective of Doctor Margaret Montoya, maligned savior of the human race, Sigler steadily fills in the details of the second book for those who might have missed it. In the time since the conclusion of Contagious, Montoya has been wallowing in self-loathing for her decision that led to the nuking of Detroit and the deaths of her friends. She is thrust back into action when Director Murray calls on her to investigate a new outbreak of the alien virus, believed (or at least hoped) to be eradicated. Montoya is rushed off to a Navy task force stationed in Lake Michigan — a task force responsible for quarantining the remains of the alien “Orbital” responsible for so much death and destruction. This is where, through a series of unfortunate events, the virus escapes containment and spreads across the world…
I don’t remember liking Margaret Montoya when I read Infected, but then again I don’t remember liking any of the characters of that book. The Margaret of Pandemic presents someone I can empathize with. She is damaged. She has done her duty, fighting against the spread of this alien doomsday weapon, and has little to show for it. Her friends are dead, her marriage in shambles, and much of America hates her. She spends her days cooped up in the house reading the hateful comments of trolls online when she should be celebrated for her quick-thinking and heroism. And despite all this, when the alien threat rears its ugly head once more Margaret barely hesitates to jump back into the fray. She’s a doctor, a scientist, first and foremost. It’s admirable. And if I don’t remember liking Margaret Montoya I don’t remember Agent Clarence Otto at all. I can’t say he makes much more of an impression in Pandemic, other than being a dutiful, abuse-taking lackey of Margaret’s.
Pandemic does introduce several new characters, my favorite of which was Doctor Tim “Feelygood” Feely. Tim provided the necessary levity (the possible end of the humanity is some heavy stuff) and acted as an interesting foil to the duty-bound Margaret and the patriotic Clarence. Through self-deprecation and self-interest Tim feels like a real person, a brilliant scientist that doesn’t mind living ostentatiously off the government’s dime. Tim flirts with Margaret and antagonizes Clarence, all the while keeping his own survival in mind. He’s a bit of a weasel at first but he has the most satisfying character arc of all.
What I really appreciate about the characters of Pandemic is that no one is safe. To fans of the series this should already be abundantly clear given the deaths of several main characters in Contagious. It adds a sense of danger to proceedings that is welcome in such a tense, thriller environment – if Sigler could kill “X” and “Y” in the second book, who is he willing to kill in the finale? And the answer to that is…well a good portion of the world. My girlfriend says she likes it in books and movies “when the bomb actually goes off.” What she means by this is that things get really interesting when things don’t go according to plan, when the hero fails to prevent the terrorist and there’s a catastrophic loss of life. It’s grim, but I can’t say I disagree. Especially when it comes to thrillers. I’ve had enough of these near disasters, what do the heroes do when Pandora’s Box is opened? That’s sort of what Pandemic is. The entire trilogy is about escalation. Infected is very personal, it’s about one man’s struggle for the most part. Contagious is about a city. Pandemic is about the world. Granted, the world is at stake in each of these stories but the stakes never seem higher than they do in this third and final novel.
I had a love/hate relationship with the first half of the book. I find the science behind the alien virus to be extremely engrossing. I won’t pretend to understand it all, but Sigler does a good job of making it digestible to even the layman. I really enjoyed the tendency of the alien virus to adapt and learn from its mistakes, resulting in some creations straight from the video game Left 4 Dead. I loved reading about the lab research conducted by Margaret and Tim — from the precautions they had to take to the procedures they used. Unfortunately this left the book feeling a little static. The more active part of the story involves Chinese American college student Steve Stanton, a very skilled robotics engineer and spy for China. Steve approaches a pair of failing businessmen capable of deep water salvage operations on Lake Michigan in order to get near the Orbital crash site. Steve, and the two entrepreneurs (Cooper and Jeff) are all interesting characters. These characters add some motion to the plot early on, but the first half of the book still felt slow. This is remedied by around the midway point with the proverbial opening of Pandora’s Box so to speak. From that point forward Sigler throws Pandemic into overdrive.
It’s a full blown zombie outbreak, except that these zombies aren’t mindless, can use tools, and are able to organize. So really it’s not a zombie outbreak at all. It’s much, much more interesting. Watching the world go straight to hell is a blast. Sigler paints a vivid picture of a nation and a world overwhelmed by the enemy within. There’s courage and cowardice, insurgency and nuclear warfare. I also have to give Sigler props for not turning the religious conservative president into a lazy caricature, instead showing that dire times call for leadership above partisanship. I didn’t pick up any overtly political vibes from Pandemic (aside from a bit of heat directed at anti-vaxxers) and I found that to be particularly refreshing. The action is intense and the Battle of Chicago is particularly awesome, with Navy SEALs and Apache helicopters.
There’s lots of moral ambiguity, including medical testing on unwilling subjects and making tough decisions on the battlefield. The survival of the human race is on the line and the decisions made and the actions that result reflect this thoroughly. I will admit be disappointed in the lack of a shock-factor. With both of the previous Sigler books I read I was surprised at some of the content (specifically the self-mutilation of Infected). Keep in mind that Pandemic is gruesome but lacks some of that bite that I found at once disturbing and compelling. I will say that the toned-down nature of this book gives it a much broader appeal to people who aren’t fans of the SAW brand of “torture porn,” and that’s a considerably wise move. My final complaint is that the book resolves a little too quickly and cleanly. After nearly 600 pages the ending is slightly abrupt.
I mostly enjoyed reading Scott Sigler’s Pandemic. It’s always cool to watch an author’s craft progress over time and it’s evident that Sigler is getting better and better at what he does. Pandemic is large in scope and well written, with the best characterization I’ve yet seen out of Sigler. It reads like Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Crazies but on a global scale. It’s smart but fun, a fitting conclusion to a well-loved series.
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